'I have to get to 90m by the time of the Tokyo Olympics' - Neeraj Chopra

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A couple of days ago, not long after he was being feted for his gold medal winning effort at the Commonwealth Games, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra got a rather terse reminder of reality. It came in the form of a text message from his coach Uwe Hohn. "When do you return to Patiala? We have to start training again," Hohn had written.

Chopra hadn't forgotten at all. "I've been thinking about it too. I haven't been able to train properly ever since I won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. It is not a situation that I like," he says.

The 20-year-old knows he has to attend felicitations. On the 26th of April, he had another one - in Panchkula to attend to. The chief minister of Haryana has promised a cash reward of 1.5 crore. It is no doubt, a significant sum of money for the son of a farmer from Khandra, near Panipat. But Chopra's mind is already focused on challenges that lie ahead - the Doha Diamond League.

He has competed in the Diamond League - amongst the most elite track and field competitions short of the Olympics and World Championships -- before. This time though will be different. "Pehle free mind se khelte the. Ab logon ki expectations le ke khelna padta hai (I would play with a free mind before. Now I have to compete knowing the expectations people have on me," he says.

The pressure that Chopra has been competing with has only been increasing since 2016, when he became the first Indian to win a gold medal at a world level championship in athletics. In 2017, he won a gold at the Asian Championships and had gone into the Commonwealth Games as the favourite to win gold.

"The whole country was expecting. People were saying even before the competition that Neeraj is going to win a gold medal. It's one thing to win a medal. Gold ka ek alag pressure hota hai (there is a different pressure when you are supposed to win gold)," he says.

Chopra has a number on his mind too - 90m. Only six active athletes - Johannes Vetter, Thomas Rohler, Andreas Hoffman, Tero Pitkomaki, Chao Tsun Cheng and Julius Yego have crossed that barrier.

Chopra threw the javelin 86.47m at Gold Coast, around three and a half meters short of the javelin gold standard of 90m. It is a mark that would at once make him favourite to medal at any world level competition. Just 20, Chopra has that magical mark as his target.

"There are so many people who can throw 80m. But there is another feeling to be counted amongst those who can throw 90m. I have to get to 90m by the time of the Tokyo Olympics," he says. The mark seems monumental.

Yet Chopra has been through this feeling before. "When you make your first throw of 70m you feel good and you think about 80m. 70m is easy and you think 80m is hard. And then when I first got to 81m in the Inter University on 31st December 2015, it felt like I had just overcome a challenge. 80m was a barrier. Just like 90m is now," he says.

Chopra has little doubt he will get past that target. "I'm throwing consistently around the 85m mark. I thought I was going to get to 90m at the Commonwealth Games. But you need to be perfect for that. Going from 70m to 80m is ok, because so many people have done it. But to go from 80m to 90 you need power strength, technique to improve a lot. The main thing to improve is technique. You want that point of release to be perfect.

He knows there are areas on which to improve. "Coach tells me that I could have thrown even more at Gold Coast. My blocking leg (the leg on which he braces himself before flinging the javelin) wasn't straight enough. I wasn't putting in as much power as I could have. I could have got 2-3m more but everything has to come together to get that throw," he says.

"If I don't do well, people will begin to say that he wasn't able to perform at the biggest stage"

Chopra believes he will get to that mark. He has only just entered his twenties. At his age Vetter had a best of 76.58m, Rohrer 78.20, Taiwan's Cheng 78.68m while Yego had only just touched 74m.

This is the reason why Chopra isn't too disappointed about his performance at the World level until now. Last year, he had competed at the Diamond League (where he finished 5th with a throw of 84.67m) and also at the World Championships (where he failed to make the finals). "I didn't get a good position in the Diamond League or World Championships. These were just a chance to learn and get some experience. I had no pressure because I knew the kind of athletes I was in the middle of. These were guys who were throwing 90m and above. I was doing around 85 then. I just wanted to stand amongst them and compete," he says.

That won't just be enough this time around. "If I don't do well, people will begin to say that he wasn't able to perform at the biggest stage. The Competition is close but I have to perform there. I have won the Commonwealth Games so people expect big things from me. The Diamond League isn't easy but now I have a reputation to maintain too," he says.